Mystery Of Reading SOLVED!

Photos from 1985 008

Reading music is difficult for most beginning musicians. It takes up the lion's share of lesson time and needs constant practice and correction. I recall as a young drummer, getting lost in a sea of eighth notes, not knowing where I was in the music. I know it happens to my students today.

I want to show you how to improve your reading skill using powerful techniques I use in my teaching studio. Skilled readers are not singled out in school music classes, where they often feel embarrassed. Skilled readers spend less time learning a part, thereby having more time to do other things. Skilled readers sound like pros.


Knowing where you are in a bar is crucial. Getting lost in the bar is the most common reading mistake musicians make. How do you keep your place? Count quarter notes. If you are a horn or wind player, tap your foot. Drummers must learn to count quarters out loud while they play other rhythms. It sounds simplistic, but I see it work all the time. When you don't count quarters, you are not really focusing on the invisible subdivisions in the bar. Those subdivisions are your grid. Painters use a grid, layout artists use a grid. We musicians need a grid to make sense of the notations we read. The grid is the necessary back drop for your rhythmic understanding.


Many music books start with a whole note, then progress to a half note, then a quarter, etc. I think this is wrong because the beginner needs to feel the quarter notes at the start. The quarter note is the music's pulse. Watch anyone clap or stamp their feet to a song. Most likely they are keeping time to the quarter note as it is the easiest to perceive. It is what we call "the beat." I start my students with a quarter notes, then eighths before I even touch half notes. They need to develop an ear for the beat first.


Use words and phrases to give you the rhythm. "Penguin" works for eighth notes, "bear" works for quarter notes, and "alligator" works for sixteenth notes. I go back and forth between these words and the conventional "1 an, 2 e-and-uh."

Photos from 1985 020


Know your rhythms on sight. Just like our brain recognizes the shape of a word then gives it to us, our brain can learn to recognize the shape of a rhythm and tell us "Hey, that's the penguin rhythm." World War Two pilots learned to instantly recognize the silhouettes of enemy planes, so too, should you learn rhythm silhouettes.


Decoding is not reading. When you stop and figure out a rhythm by careful counting, you are decoding. Once decoded, you need to practice instant recall of that rhythm (remember our WW 2 pilot?).


It bears repeating that you must count your quarters while you are playing other rhythms. This takes practice, but pays off huge dividends down the road. When you count quarter notes, several good things happen:

1) You avoid the common mistake of reaching the end of the bar too soon

2) You see what's happening in every quarter note space, thus you can recognize rhythms quickly.

3) If you are sight reading in a performance situation, you lower the risk of losing your place in the music. Few things things are more frustrating for musicians than getting lost in their part.


Keep your eyes on the music, especially if you get lost. It is normal to get lost  (we all do it), but when you take your eyes off the music, you make it much harder to get back in the performance. Chances are, if you get lost, you're probably not far from where you fell off the bus, so to speak. Keep counting those quarters because you can better guess how many bars  have gone by. Doing that helps you get back into the music.


There are other instrument specific tips for improving your reading skill, but I will leave that for another blog. In the meantime, practice the techniques I've given you because they work!